Deceptively edited videos that have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on Twitter and TikTok exaggerate the speech issues that have plagued John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat, after he had a stroke in May.
Despite policies on both platforms against political misinformation, the videos remained up for days and were shared by Fetterman’s critics.
The videos contain slight edits, such as cutting out the sound of the audience to make it appear as if he had abruptly stopped speaking (some of the stops occurred when he was pausing during moments of applause and crowd reaction, according to unedited videos seen by NBC News). Other edits cut Fetterman off mid-sentence, to create the perception that what he was saying was nonsensical.
Fetterman spokesperson Joe Calvello said in an email responding to the videos, “It is pretty sad and frankly desperate that Dr. Oz’s MAGA allies are deceptively editing videos of John speaking in order to mock him while he recovers from a stroke.”
The videos could run afoul of Twitter’s rules against political misinformation, despite still being available. The platform says it bans “synthetic, manipulated, or out-of-context media” that is “likely to result in widespread confusion on public issues.”
Twitter did not immediately respond to requests for comment. TikTok removed the videos that were flagged to the company by NBC News citing the company’s “integrity and authenticity” policy, which includes rules about misinformation.
The videos are among the most high-profile pieces of misleading video to circulate ahead of the midterms, though not the first out of this race. Another “cheapfake,” a term for a lightly doctored piece of media, was spread about Fetterman’s GOP opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, in which he appeared to pose for a photo with a sign that read “NO” instead of “OZ.”
In the past, platforms have taken action against viral videos of politicians that were manipulated. In the run-up to the 2020 election, doctored videos of Nancy Pelosi that made her seem impaired went viral on social media. Experts have warned that these lightly edited videos, also sometimes called “shallow fakes” can be particularly effective pieces of misinformation.
Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, gave the speech used in the edited video at a campaign rally on Sunday. In it, he joked about some of the verbal slips that have come after his stroke, speaking slowly and sometimes appearing to insert extra words into his sentences or rephrase things midsentence, something his critics have zeroed in on.
Asking audience members if they’ve ever faced a health challenge, he referred to his opponent, saying, “I truly hope for each and every one of you, you didn’t have a doctor in your life making fun of it.”
Speculation about Fetterman’s health has reached a fever pitch over the last several weeks. Fetterman only agreed to a debate with Oz last week, after sustaining numerous questions and attacks from Oz and his supporters. Fetterman has maintained a limited schedule since his stroke and has said he is working to improve his auditory processing and speech as he recovers. The Washington Post editorial board called on Fetterman to release his health records and for numerous debates to be held, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board also voiced concerns about Fetterman’s health.
The edited videos of Fetterman’s speech on Sunday built on that speculation, gaining the most traction on Twitter when posted by Greg Price, a senior digital strategist at X Strategies, a conservative political consulting group.
One video tweeted Monday by Price has over 600,000 views and has been shared hundreds of times. Another video posted by Price on Monday that cuts out audience audio has over 120,000 views on Twitter and was accompanied by the caption, “In case you were wondering why John Fetterman’s handlers won’t let him debate….”
Price did not respond to specific questions about how the videos were edited, but said in a Twitter message that Fetterman is “clearly unfit in every way to serve in the senate.”
The videos migrated to other social media platforms as well. On TikTok, before the videos were removed, a search for “Fetterman” yielded a cut of the edited speech as the first recommended result, despite the video being posted two days ago. One edited video posted on the platform has over 32,000 views.